Being branch manager for Micro Africa Jobes Omondi is a busy man. It’ Micro Africa’s biggest branch in a large area called Kawangware, a buzzing part of Nairobi. It’s nine in the morning, and he’s just out of a meeting with the credit committee which deals with loan applications every day. The applications also come in every morning. I want to know what it’s like to be a loan officer, what the challenges are, and Mr. Omondi, who used to be one, should know.
– The biggest challenge is when a loan defaults, when clients don’t pay or simply disappear. That’s the biggest problem: We can’t trace them. And that’s why we work hard on getting to know them real well. We take borrowers through referrals; the current groups refer new clients to us, which enables us to have a call back plan. The group members sign for each other, and we make sure they really know the conditions, says Jobes Omondi, who also knows about the challenges of being a branch manager.
– You have to understand the staff and meet their expectations. The loan officers, of which we have eight, have different temperaments, and I have to mentor them and lead them into a new culture.
Micro Africa mainly deals with group loans and some SME. Kawangware is a highly populated area, it’s a mixed market with slums and nicer areas. The middle class is slowly emerging here as elsewhere in Kenya.
Ezekiel Kamanu is a loan officer who tells me about the difference between the active poor and the poor.
– The active poor has done something about his or her situation, maybe saved up some money. He can get a loan whereas the poor can only get charity and try to move up to be active poor, says Ezekiel Kamanu, who – when we talk about the fact that the borrowers are mainly women introduces me to an African saying: “It’s better to get a foolish husband than a foolish wife”, meaning that the wife can cover for a not so good husband, not the other way around (these are Ezekiel’s words, not mine!).
Both Ezekiel and Jobes have a background in banking. – As loan officer you have to break the ground and our muscle is much smaller, a loan officer makes a good banker. If you can make it in microfinance, you can make it everywhere, as teacher or as administrator. I can tell in five minutes, if a potential client will be a good customer or spend the money on something else. On any day you can either be very disappointed, when you have visited a group, or you can be very happy. With the first you just have to leave it behind you like dirty clothes and get on. You must be thorough and smart and stand strong in the wind, says Jobes.
Ezekiel: – I like my job, the best thing is to see the changes in peoples’ lives, to empower people. A full group cannot disappear. The idea of group loans is brilliant, we can manage the group. But sometimes people disappear: This is credit! It happens!